Running with King Charles: the epic journey of music’s comeback kid - from John O’Groats to Land’s End

·7-min read
Charles Costa AKA King Charles is running from John O’Groats to Land’s End for a mental health charity, with an acoustic performance every night of the journey  (Nahwand Jaff)
Charles Costa AKA King Charles is running from John O’Groats to Land’s End for a mental health charity, with an acoustic performance every night of the journey (Nahwand Jaff)

While most bands are still edging back carefully into the idea of gigging, one musician has already nearly finished an epic UK tour. West Londoner Charles Costa, who has released three albums under the stage name King Charles, ought to be hitting Bristol around now on a solo run from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, a leg-battering jog that equates roughly to 40 marathons in 40 days, with an acoustic performance somewhere every night along the way.

I joined him and his support crew on days 23 and 24, helping him towards the southern end of the Peak District by running alongside him for about half of each day, diminishing his stock of bananas, spotting concealed gateways and asking incisive questions such as “Why?”, “How??” and “Huh???” As an indie rock star who looks like a swashbuckling pirate, shouldn’t he be rolling out of bed at 4pm for a soundcheck and more drugs? What’s with the leggings and energy bars?

“Being on the road, heading somewhere, has always been a passion. That’s what I love about touring with my music,” says the 36-year-old. “City life can get very psychologically stagnant if I’m not moving. It can upset the dynamics of any mind.”

 (Nahwand Jaff)
(Nahwand Jaff)

When I arrive off the train at Derby mid-afternoon, he’s horizontal in a large grey minibus on a residential street in Buxton, having lunch. Surprisingly, as someone who ought to be used to the spotlight, he isn’t the centre of attention. That’s Andy Smith, the boss of the London youth charity Regenerate, for which Charles is hoping to raise £100,000. Andy is a geezerish Chelsea fan whose claim to fame is writing a football chant about the player Willian that was sung regularly in the stands until the Brazilian joined Arsenal last year. He’s organising the logistics, marshalling a small changing team of young drivers, tent pitchers and cooks who volunteer for his organisation, and trying to run a half marathon himself every day on the way down to Cornwall. When Charles loses him on the trails, as he frequently will because Andy prefers roads and fears cows, he’ll soon enough hear a reconnecting “Oi oi!” from a nearby hilltop.

Charles’s manager keeps telling him to do more social media posts and videos, like Andy. But Charles seems intensely focused on the job at hand, which would be taxing for a hardened ultrarunner, never mind an amateur who has never participated in a race of any length and first covered a marathon distance while training for this challenge in Snowdonia. He’s quiet, often shuffling onwards with his walking poles without telling you until you spot him in the next field, and largely avoids eye contact. He seems comfortable doing the interview as we move, talking over his shoulder.

“I’ve always run a little bit. Then it became an absolutely essential practice, every day,” he tells me. “To get out of bed, I had to go running.”

In the late 2000s, he dropped out of a Sociology course at Durham University after a year to pursue a music career. “I didn’t apply myself at university at all. Music was the only thing I had any interest whatsoever in doing.” He got a manager who entered one of his early compositions, a bouncy piano-led song called Love Lust, into the International Songwriting Competition, a kind of more credible Eurovision based in Nashville. It won 2009’s Grand Prize in the Rock category, and a major label record deal ensued.

 (Nahwand Jaff)
(Nahwand Jaff)

But at the same time as he was making a debut album, he was suffering the after-effects of a serious skiing accident that had him helicoptered off a mountainside in Austria and put in an induced coma for five days. Physically, he was soon remarkably fine, but the brain trauma left him feeling like a different person. “The part of my brain that deals with inhibitions was so badly bruised. Sometimes I would be uninhibited, as though I’d just fallen drunk out of a club. I’d walk into the middle of the road and try to stop the traffic.” Lack of inhibitions might also explain his buccaneering early look: towering dreadlocks, a billowing shirt and a twirly moustache. But it definitely didn’t make life easier. “At the same time I was terrified of everything. I’d barely be able to leave my mother’s side, I was so scared. To someone who didn’t know me I’d seem healthy – maybe a bit far out. But actually it was pretty horrific.”

Nevertheless, the energetic folk-pop of his debut album, Loveblood, grazed the top 40 in 2012, he supported Mumford & Sons on tour, and Marcus Mumford produced his more serious sounding second album, Gamble for a Rose, in 2016. Medication helped him to function, until he stopped seeing his psychiatrist in 2018, decided to stop taking the pills, and in his words, “really hit rock bottom”.

 (Nahwand Jaff)
(Nahwand Jaff)

He was also recording a third album, the unsubtly titled Out of my Mind. It was released in April 2020 and didn’t get much attention, given that the world was a bit busy with the whole pandemic thing. He’ll finally get to take the music on a concert tour in November, after he’s recovered from the running tour. It’s his best work, more electronic this time, with a laidback funkiness that recalls another royal, Prince. But as cries for help go, they don’t come much louder than the opening lines of Freak: “I’ve never really felt alive/I’m heading for a suicide/I never really get it right/I hope this noose is on tight.”

He spent time in a mental health facility in 2018, got on some different medication and began to find some joy in running, doing daily laps of the track at Paddington Recreation Ground, a stone’s throw from his home. “After I’ve been running I feel free, completely released from the sinister tangle of things that I feel when I wake up. No hospitals, doctors or prescriptions can get as close as running and singing to making me feel really, really healed.”

Now he’s combining music and movement in this epic way, performing a few songs on his guitar at the end of every day of his challenge. He’s sung in Britain’s most remote hotel, Garvault House in northern Scotland, as well as campsites, village pubs and Glossop Rugby Club. While I’m with him, a late finish to the run and a delay in sourcing pizza leaves him singing to his team, bar staff and three guests of the Best Western Hotel in Buxton at 10.30pm. Even so, Andy dilligently hands out cardboard coasters explaining the challenge and the work of Regenerate, which among other things helps young people who may have experienced gangs or prison into employment in south west London. He lands another 50 quid for the charity – taking the total raised to over £40,000 – and a free round of drinks for everyone.

 (Nahwand Jaff)
(Nahwand Jaff)

Charles, Andy and I continue avoiding bulls and seeking the gaps in dry stone walls the next day, starting running at what’s actually a pretty rock ‘n’ roll departure time of midday. It’s slow going, wading through the long grass, walking the hills. When he reaches Land’s End in early September he hopes to get his bandmates down for a grand gig finale.

There have been two trips to A&E so far – an irregular heartbeat for Andy and a painful swollen shin for Charles. “The doctor told me to rest for two weeks, which of course I haven’t,” he says. “She was so unimpressed by the whole thing.” She must be the only one. This sets a new bar for musicians going on tour, and it won’t end there. Now he’s talking about running the length of Italy.

King Charles should complete his run on Sep 2. Follow his journey on Instagram @kingcharlesuk and @regenerateuk and sponsor him at justgiving.com/campaign/TheFeelGoodJog. He also tours the UK from Oct 30 to Nov 7 including Omeara, SE1 on Nov 3-4. kingcharlesmusic.com

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